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Wisconsin and Columbia Cagers Provide Joy While Orioles Sputter in Spring Training

There is nothing like having one's team in contention for a title. Much was expected of the Columbia basketball team this season. Its four seniors brought a lot to the table and two were coming back from year-long injuries: forward Alex Rosenberg and guard Grant Mullins.

Combined with perennial All-Ivy shooting marvel Maado Lo and the versatile Isaac Cohen - who can impact a game positively without take a shot - an end to the Ivy League championship drought since 1967-68 seemed within reach. Unfortunately for fans of the Light Blue and White Lions, Yale and Princeton were just a little bit better this season.

Yet Columbia under six=year head coach Kyle Smith has done very well in the post-season College Insiders Tournament (a tourney so "inside" that very few people know about it). Blessed with two home games, Columbia trounced Norfolk State and came from behind to nip Ball State 69-67.

On Easter Sunday March 27 at 6p they will face NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) for the right to meet in the championship game on Tuesday March 29. Both games will be televised on the CBS Sports Network cable channel. NJIT's coach is a former Columbia assistant Jim Engles, something that adds a little flavor to the matchup. The Lions beat NJIT by 9 points in December.

Meanwhile out in Big Ten land my graduate alma mater University of Wisconsin Badgers has surprised all the pundits by making the Sweet Sixteen. Not once all season did they crack the Top 25 in the weekly polls. (Among superfluous ridiculous aspects in today's sports, those basketball-football polls rank very high IMHO).

Lots of heart-warming stories with this year's Badger team. High among them is coach Greg Gard earning the full-time job for his great work after taking over in mid-December after Bo Ryan's retirement.

Unlike Ryan who rarely used his bench, Gard has developed youngsters Jordan Hill and Ethan Iverson and Charlie Thomas into players who can provide key minutes while the impressive starters need a rest.

A third straight Final Four appearance seemed the unlikeliest of dreams a few weeks ago. It is still a long shot but how lovely it is to dream of it. Even to the point of writing about it just a few hours before the Badgers take on Notre Dame for the right to play either North Carolina or Indiana on Sunday.

All this basketball love has enabled me not to worry too much (yet) about how the Orioles will fare in 2016. If I were a pundit predicting the season, I would be hard-pressed not to pick them 5th in the 5=team AL East. Their starting pitching looks mediocre at best.

But fortunately no games count until Monday April 4 when they begin the season against the Minnesota Twins who swept them out of the pennant race last year with seven straight victories. Certainly the Birds are due for a win. So I will say with a wan smile channeling the late pitcher-pundit Joaquin Andujar, "Youneverknow, youneverknow."

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.  Read More 
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Quandaries of September Baseball

Orioles manager Buck Showalter always has something provocative to say. Though his team is relegated to a spoiler role this September after an AL East title in 2014, he is like the man in the old EF Hutton commercial: When he talks, you listen.

Showalter says that a major league season is really four seasons: Spring Training, Regular Season (through August), September, and October (and in the case of 2015 early November – a potential World Series 7th game is slated for November 5.)

Showalter and many others in the baseball trenches, including Yankees manager Joe Girardi, has a problem with the September season. They are upset at the expansion of rosters after September 1st. As many as 15 extra players can crowd dugouts when minor league seasons are over and prospects are called up to provide reinforcements.

Showalter has been vehement on the need for a limit on the number of active players for any game. He argues persuasively that it should remain 25, just the way it is earlier in the season. The rest can be “taxi squad” members, inactive for the day's game but available for duty in future games.

[TRIVIA INTERLUDE: Do you know the origin of the term “taxi squad”? The powerhouse Cleveland Browns football team of post-World War II fledgling All-America Football Conference – AAFC – were owned by taxicab magnate Arthur McBride. They were so loaded with talent that rather than lose good players in a roster crunch, McBride put surplus talent on his taxicab payroll to keep them.]

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem any groundswell of support visible for season-long 25-man active rosters. For managers like Showalter and Girardi who think long and hard about relief pitcher-batter matchups late in the game, the extra roster members make life more difficult than necessary.

Baseball wasn’t always run this way. For many seasons after World War II and perhaps into the 1960s, rosters of up to 35 were the rule through mid-May. Then cuts were made to send the extra men back to the minors for more playing time.

That makes more sense to me, but right now it seems the system is designed to reward the poorer teams who can bring up fresh faces in September to give their fans some hope for next year. But success in September can be very illusory.

New York Mets fans will remember how Mike Vail’s splashy September in 1975 - .307 BA, 3 HR, 17 RBI in 162 ABs - led them to trade proven run producer Rusty Staub. That didn’t work out very well did it? Vail never came close to establishing himself and Staub went on to many more productive years.

This is not a dig at Mets fans that should be enjoying every moment of their spectacular rise to the top of the NL East, aided in no small measure by the spectacular flop of pre-season World Series favorite Washington Nats.

Don’t worry, Mets fans, about whether Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes will re-sign for the future. Or how many innings suddenly Dark Night-like (instead of Dark Knight-like) Matt Harvey has left in his arm.

Enjoy every moment of this surge, and when the time is near, then worry about how to deal with likely playoff opponent L.A. and the Dodgers one-two punch of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. After all, since starters even great ones rarely throw complete games, bullpens determine victories these days and LA's isn't outstanding. Kershaw also has had a history of post-season failure that could linger.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. There is much of September left and sometimes pressure and fatigue can create slumps.

“Yaneverknow,”, Joaquin Andujar loved to utter his one word of explanation of baseball. And RIP Andujar, 62, who died earlier this week of complications from diabetes.

For now, as always, remember: Take it easy but take it!
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